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It was always the fourth question.

As movie critics skittered back and forth from screenings and news conferences at September's Toronto International Film Festival, they invariably ran into old friends on the fly they hadn't seen in a year or two. Without time to sit and chat, questions went like this: 1) How are you? 2) How's your wife (husband)? 3) And the kids? 4) Have you seen "Sideways" yet? Don't miss it.

As I said, the inevitable fourth question -- have you seen "Sideways" yet?

Get ready to start hearing it yourself.

Such is the Hurry Up and Wait life of movie critics that more than two months separated all that scurrying and rapid-fire questioning from last Sunday's two-page ad in the New York Times claiming (with nothing but justification) that Alexander Payne's "Sideways" is already the best-reviewed film of the year with plenty of venues left to open in yet. (It finally and belatedly opens in Buffalo on Friday.)

And why not? It's funny and smart and wise and sexy and deeply, lovably human in ways that movies, except for Payne's, don't know all that much about anymore.

Smack in the middle of all that, Alexander Payne, on the phone, informed the admiring Buffalo critic that Buffalo and his native Omaha are very much alike, which undoubtedly accounts for the fact, says the great director, that he has always seemed to get on well with Buffalo people. (His film editor, Kevin Tent, is in fact from East Aurora. Tent's sister is local photographer Lauren Tent.)

Payne, in fact, grew up on the same block as billionaire News owner Warren Buffett and used to play racquetball in his garage.

Payne may have become to Omaha what Barry Levinson and John Waters are to Baltimore. Middle America is always his subject, even when, as in "Sideways," his movie is about two old college roommates -- one a deeply neurotic and depressed wine snob -- footloose and far from fancy-free on a final bachelor fling in California wine country.

He is a kind of coastal corrective, in fact, on dim blue-state ideas of what Middle America is like. And when you talk to him, you also discover that he is a fiercely articulate advocate of humanist filmmaking who is steeped in the history of film. In other words, it is absolutely no accident whatsoever that his movies -- "Citizen Ruth," "Election," "About Schmidt" and now "Sideways" -- are as extraordinary as they are.

Alexander Payne knows what he is doing.

A conversation with the man who has directed the best-loved movie of the year, thus far:

On growing up down the block from Warren Buffett.

He kept a nicely manicured lawn. We used to play racquetball at his house. Years ago, he converted his garage into a racquetball court. I haven't been over there since I was a kid. But my older brother knows his daughter very well -- Susie Jr. My parents live in the same house, and he's lived in the same house since the late '50s. A lot of change does not come quickly to Omaha.

On the truly vast difference between "Sideways" and most other "comedies" being release by Hollywood at the moment.

I think in many ways craft has been lost in American filmmaking. I remember a couple years ago that I saw in the same week "In the Bedroom," which was being heralded as a very good recent, intelligent American film -- and it's fine enough I suppose. But a couple days later I went to see -- and I know they're not comparable films in any way -- "Cabaret."

Man! Seeing "Cabaret" again, I began to wonder, "What's happened to this film craft? Where is lighting like this? Where is depth of character development like this? Where is editing like this? I think there are certain aspects of filmmaking that have gone the way of arcane lacquer processes in Japan or something. There are things about craft that come and go. I'd like to believe they could come back, that they're still within us somewhere.

When I think about American comedies, I think about so many. First and foremost, I think about the great Paramount directors -- Lubitsch, Sturges, Wilder and Frank Capra over at Columbia. But then I also think Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese are terrific comedy directors.

"Old School" and "Dodgeball" and the kind of sophomoric things? Well, Jim Brooks is still making movies. They're good. He's got a new movie ("Spanglish") coming out this year.

I don't want a gimmick. I want comedy that stems from a potentially real-life human situation. One comedy I watch about every 18 months or so is Lubitsch's "To Be or Not To Be." I'm just so madly in love with that movie.

On the relative lack of difficulty getting "Sideways" made.

I'll never say "easy," but it was surprisingly easier than previous films have been to get made. It went pretty smoothly. It might have to do with the way in which the producer and I went about it. And was NOT involving a studio until the last possible moment. We optioned rights to the novel, wrote a screenplay on spec, paid for casting ourselves and had a budget drawn up. And only then did we approach studios and say, "Here's the whole package, including our cast."

We weren't asking for that much money either -- somewhere between $15 (million) and $17 million. The film ended up being about $16 (million). I found myself suddenly, thankfully, not needing the presence of an A-list movie star in order to get financing.

(There were some studio objections to the movie starring Paul Giamatti, not exactly a household name except among movie people and critics.) Two of them had doubts about Giamatti. One of them proposed considering Will Ferrell to play Miles. I like Will Ferrell a lot, but I couldn't see him as Miles. The other two really took to Giamatti immediately, including, I must say, Paramount. We finally went with Fox Searchlight, but Sherry Lansing (of Paramount) loves Giamatti from the Howard Stern movie, where he played Pig Vomit.

On working with Jack Nicholson in "About Schmidt."

We were obviously very different people from very different ages and different sensibilities, but I think we had a shared sensibility about film and what we like in film. . . . We're very different people. But there's a lot of mutual respect between us. And I so look up to the guy. . . . I want to learn from the man who has been in films for 45 years, a man who has touched Antonioni and Kubrick and Polanski and Rafelson. I have much to learn from him.

On Hollywood politics.

What I think about Hollywood and politics is this: Not all of them are artists, but let's pretend they're artists for a minute. If you ask painters, poets or novelists whom they're supporting, they will tell you, and it would mean one thing. I just think there's more celebrity to be found among actors. I think's it's not to journalists' credit that they're always sticking microphones and cameras in the faces of these people. I don't really care that much about Hollywood liberals. But I do actually think it's not just the right of the artist to speak out in difficult times, I actually think it's a responsibility.

I think it's the duty of artists when things are going in the wrong direction to our basest animal nature, to point the way and say, 'Look how pretty the moon is. Look at beauty here. Look out there -- this higher way of living we've been trying to find a way toward." And say, "Why are you slipping back?" I think that's the role of the artist in society.

On the filmmaking contemporaries he feels close to.

Some of the directors who are my friends, we don't make very similar films -- David Russell, for instance. I'm a little bit friends with Spike Jonze, I'm a little bit friends with Sophia Coppola. We all make very different films.

He's only made one feature so far, but I really adored "Raising Victor Vargas," so I've become friends with Peter Sollett. I look at him as an up-and-coming humanist filmmaker.

I think we need a new kind of humanism if not an out and out neo-realism -- a neo-neo-realism -- here in the U.S.

There's too much going on these days that's not being put on film.